Early 2014 Grape Harvest Begins

California vintners optimistic about early vintage with continued high quality

by Andrew Adams
Steve Matthiasson picked these clusters of Syrah from the Dunnigan Hills AVA on July 28. Several North Coast winemakers plan to start harvesting grapes for sparkling wine Wednesday.
San Rafael, Calif.—An early vintage is getting started in the North Coast, where a few vintners are picking grapes this week for their sparkling and rosé wine programs.

While the 2013 vintage arrived earlier than normal, some growers see signs that 2014 will be even earlier. They’re happy to report though that grape quality is comparable to 2012 and 2013, and yields are expected to be slightly above average if not as big as in 2013.

Harvest has already begun in the Temecula Valley AVA as well as other areas of Southern California and the Central Valley.

Anthony Weytjens, the Northern California regional manager and winemaker for Atlas Vineyard Management, said picking will start this week but the big start will come next week.

He said the company is picking grapes for sparkling wine in the Russian River AVA of Sonoma County on Wednesday, and that is a record early start for Atlas, which manages 1,600 acres from California’s Central Coast north to Mendocino County and Oregon. Ripening is occurring about 10 to 14 days earlier than normal. The winemaker noted still wine grapes in the Santa Rita Hills AVA are ripening even earlier. “In my opinion the early drought has made the phenological cycle start earlier, which is why we are seeing everything develop quicker,” he said. “I also see smaller clusters with smaller berries than 2013.” 

Weytjens said at this point the major concerns are rains during harvest and the logistics of bringing in grapes as several different varieties are ripening along similar schedules. His early assessment of the vintage, however, is that it could be better than 2013—and that has him excited about making wine this year. “I think we will be able to pick grapes at lower sugar levels with the same great flavors,” he said.

Weytjens is the winemaker for Atlas’ new Agnitio brand, which the company developed to support its vineyard workers. The label art will feature Atlas workers, and proceeds will go toward a scholarship fund for their children. Weytjens also produces a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blend for his own label, Tramuntana, which he’s made since 2012.

High quality, high yields
Mumm Napa winemaker Ludovic Dervin confirmed the winery will be picking its first Pinot Noir grapes at the Rutherford, Calif., estate vineyards on Wednesday. He said it appears 2014 will continue a string of high-quality harvests with good yields. “High-quality fruit is in abundance,” he said.

Dervin said the entire growing season has been running about two and half weeks ahead of what’s typically considered normal. “Crop load is above average, but most likely not as big as last year.”

A tropical front from the Pacific brought high humidity and some scattered showers earlier this month. Dervin said Napa Valley didn’t see much rain, but the humidity was a bit of a concern. “We just have to carefully monitor potential spots of mildew and drop affected fruit before harvest.”

North Coast
On July 29, 2013, Steve Matthiasson picked Syrah for his own brand from a vineyard in the Dunnigan Hills AVA, and this year he picked the same vineyard a day earlier. He said this year’s grapes were riper than in 2013. “Last year was almost a shockingly early year, (and) this year is even earlier.”

He said the spring rains that hit the North Coast in March came at just the perfect moment for the area’s vineyards. That rain has helped vineyards in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino stay vigorous, produce a good amount of leaf area and remain healthy despite the drought. He said he thinks yields will be a bit above average yet still smaller than last year. “It’s a healthy crop, but it’s not huge,” he said.

Matthiasson, who is president of Premiere Viticultural Services, said it looks like an early harvest throughout the North Coast. “Everything is pretty much following the same pattern,” he said.

Compared to the cooler, wetter years of 2010 and 2011, Matthiasson said he expects Bordeaux varieties to come in a full month earlier, around the second week of September. Merlot and Zinfandel vines appear to have suffered some shatter, but Matthiasson said that was limited to “isolated pockets,” and the statewide crop should still be strong.

The overall quality should be excellent, he said. Warm, but not too hot, weather has provided excellent ripening conditions that should produce balanced grapes.

Perhaps the only dark cloud on the horizon is, in fact, the complete lack of dark clouds on the horizon as some wells are already starting to go dry. Matthiasson said that would be of particular concern should Northern California experience a long spell of hot weather, leaving growers without sufficient irrigation water. “The big picture is the groundwater is not good,” he said. “We better get some rain, because the groundwater is so depleted we need an El Niño or we’d be in trouble next year.”

Central Coast progress
Alison Crowe, director of winemaking at Plata Wine Partners, spoke to Wines & Vines from Paso Robles, Calif., where she was checking on some of the company’s vineyards. She makes wine from vineyards on the Central Coast and North Coast, and also reports that everything is about two weeks early. Crowe said her fist grapes usually come from a vineyard in Carneros, and she expects to pick those Pinot Noir vines during Labor Day weekend this year.

She said that even with the drought, a very mild frost season and the spring rains put her North Coast vineyards in pretty good shape in terms of water. That plus a mild and smooth season so far has left her optimistic but just a bit wary because everything has gone so well. “It’s a little too quiet and perfect,” she quipped.

Concerns include a prolonged heat spike or some rain, but Crowe doesn’t see anything on the long-range forecast. The other worry is if everything starts maturing at the same time. “The concern that we always have is the Cab gets ripe right away on the heels of the Pinot, so it causes a traffic jam in the cellar,” she said.

In terms of yield, Crowe said she expects the 2014 vintage to be about average. “I don’t think it’s going to be a record, huge harvest for a third time.”

Posted on 07.31.2014 - 10:40:57 PST
Thanks for mentioning Temecula and the South Coast appellation in your article. It is great to be included and considered part of the California wine industry.